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Laura Seil Ruszczyk: Second chance brings immense joy to my life

Loss: The experience of having something taken from you or destroyed.

Grief: Deep sadness; trouble or annoyance.

Strange words to describe biking, but I can explain.

In June 2010, I was biking when something happened that changed the trajectory of my life. I climbed a familiar hill five miles into a ride when I became light-headed and my heartbeat erratic. I dove off the bike to the ground and aborted the ride. The remainder of the day I rested and chalked the experience up to dehydration. Deep down, though, I knew something was wrong.

I continued biking that summer, but my usual 10- to 15-mile rides evaporated; I couldn’t go beyond 5 miles. I was tired and had two more episodes where I had to bolt to the ground. Biking was somewhat enjoyable but I was now a prisoner of my puzzling body; unable to leave my 1-mile neighborhood loop as my body fought me. So I pedaled round and round the block and tried holding on to the joy biking had offered for 15 years. I felt the loss of freedom and grieved this, but more so my body’s betrayal.

In the fall, my symptoms escalated. After seeing several specialists and undergoing tests, I was diagnosed with dysautonomia – the deregulation of the autonomic nervous system. The system regulates such functions as heartbeat, blood pressure, temperature control and digestion.

In August 2012, after an 18-month wait, I became a patient of cardiologist Blair Grubb at the University of Toledo Medical Center. He is a world-renowned dysautonomia specialist. This past October, Dr. Grubb implanted a pacemaker in me to alleviate bradycardia, low heart rate.

After recovering from surgery, an idea brewed. Perhaps I could bike again? It was a huge loss when I had to stop more than two years earlier, but this newfound feeling of a steady heartbeat produced hope. My legs were somewhat strong from riding a stationery bike, so I knew that wasn’t an issue.

One early spring day, I took a spin on my specialized hybrid and couldn’t stop smiling. I covered 4.5 miles as my heart beat strong. I felt alive and free and realized perhaps I could finally Ride for Ros-well again after a five-year break. I have been an Extra Mile Club member for years and had become a “virtual rider” since chronic illness entered my world.

After purchasing a 24-speed hybrid, I began training for the 10-mile course. I found I could bike 4 to 5 miles before symptoms of dysautonomia appeared. Then, if I stretched out for about 10 minutes and drank Gatorade, I could usually continue. Slowly I made it to 10 miles.

When I told my primary care doctor my plan to Ride for Ros-well, he thought I was crazy until he heard my husband would accompany me for safety measures.

I raised $1,700. June 28 came and as we began the ride, a huge smile formed. I can’t adequately describe the joy I felt while participating again after losing this privilege. After crossing the finish line, I thanked God first for restoring the gift of biking. Then I thought of the survivors – those lost to cancer whom I ride in honor of, and those in treatment. They are the reason for the day. Afterward, it took about a week for my body to recover, but it was worth it.

I don’t know how long I’ll be able to bike. But for now I seize the opportunities, grab the joy and rejoice in this second chance each time I strap on my helmet.